Reading series continues with distinguished local author
October 31st, 2011
Omaha, NE – The Missouri Valley Reading Series continues this week. On Wednesday, the series will present a local author whose latest book delves into racial prejudice in the South – through the lens of colorful characters and imaginative storytelling.
Author Mary Helen Stefaniak’s new novel The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia is the story of a small Georgia town, which is turned upside down by a well-traveled schoolteacher, Miss Grace Spivey, and her love for the exotic Arabian Peninsula, as well as her oblivious embrace of an African American neighbor. Set in 1938, the story looks at racial prejudice in the South through the window of intriguing and vivid characters.
“The attraction of writing fiction, for me, is to try to imagine my way into these other points of view,” Stefaniak said.
Stefaniak grew up with both an outsider and insider perspective of the South during the civil rights era. She was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to a family of Hungarian immigrants. But her mother was from Georgia, and the family visited regularly.
“That really gave me this kind of dual vision of everything that happened through the civil rights movement,” she said, “and you have this understanding that there are problems in both places and also connections in both places.”
Stefaniak now lives, again, in two worlds. She divides her time between Iowa City and Omaha, where she teaches at Creighton University. Stefaniak’s latest novel won her an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year. The award recognizes books “that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism.” Her work is partly inspired by, or as she has put it, partly an argument with, novelist Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor grew up in the same town as Stefaniak’s mother – in fact, they went to the same high school: Peabody in Milledgeville, Georgia. But the south that O’Connor depicts in her novels is quite different than Stefaniak’s.
“The South that’s projected in her stories is very different from the South that my mother grew up in,” Stefaniak said. “And part of that is because Flannery O’Connor is not writing realistic fiction. She’s writing stories in which she makes situations and characters kind of bigger, well, the word that she used is grotesque.”
“She was writing from a perspective of belief that she felt her audience did not share,” Stefaniak said. “And this is not talking about her audience in rural Georgia, because that’s not where her audience was.”
In fact, the rural Georgia which was not O’Connor’s audience, but rather her subject matter, is the experience of Stefaniak’s mother – Protestant and working class. And that’s the perspective she draws from.
“I feel as though what my fiction tries to do is give, unlikely as it might be, allow people to make a connection, that one person sort of can save another person in one of my stories,” she said.
“So that’s the argument… people can be instruments of salvation for one another, and not in a negative sense, not by being obstacles to overcome, or by somebody who shoots them in the chest three times, which is what generally happens in a Flannery O’Conner story,” she laughed.
Stefaniak will read from her novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia during the Missouri Valley Reading Series at the University of Nebraska Omaha Wednesday, Nov 2 at 7:30pm in the Milo Bail Student Center Dodge Room.
Listen now to hear Stefaniak read from her novel
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